At first glance, Helen Carroll does not look like a champion of environmental justice. A white cotton sweater, decorated with a sewn-on pattern of golden, glitter-bedecked trees that shimmer in the light, clings to her diminutive figure. With short white hair, horn-rim glasses and friendly, smile-wrinkled blue eyes, she looks more like the grandma that always baked delicious zucchini bread for Christmas.
Yet this Trainsong resident of 20 years was among a group of infuriated Eugene citizens that tried to file suit against railroad giant Union Pacific after they learned that decades of railyard operations had contaminated the same ground water they drank for years with cancerous chemicals.
During her time in the community, Carroll has seen family members and neighbors die from fatal diseases. Her brother lived at 402 Bethel Drive, near the locus of the pollution, and died of kidney failure. Another man, who lived across the street, ate vegetables from a garden he doused daily with the befouled water. He died of leukemia. Another neighbor currently has breast cancer.
Carroll herself developed type II diabetes after moving into the neighborhood. Her brother also developed the disease while living in Trainsong. And when Carroll moved her mother into the community, she developed type II diabetes as well.
Only after the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) conducted tests on the water and discovered the presence of dangerous chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) did Carroll suspect that the health problems were caused by the railroad.
“People were furious when they found out,” Carroll said. “They had been drinking this water for years, and they never knew. We had big neighborhood meetings with [mayor] Kitty Piercy and the DEQ, and nothing came of it. The DEQ and the railroad people would stand up there and listen and then disappear into the woodwork. You’d never hear from them again.”
When Union Pacific started to clean up the community in 2005, Carroll’s house was among those targeted for improvement. They put a layer of plastic under the home and installed a vent that blew air from the crawl space, where chemicals from the contaminated ground water collected and seeped into her home, to the outside air.
After these measures, the DEQ declared that VOCs levels were dropping. In 2011, the railroad will stop soil testing altogether.
The issue, for Carroll, is far from over.
“They put a Band-Aid on the problem,” she said. “And when everyone’s happy with the Band-Aid, they hope it just goes away.”
Carroll receives periodic updates from Union Pacific about the state of the clean up operations and the potential dangers they still hold.
“They send you an inch-thick stack of papers that it takes a physicist to read, and people don’t read it,” she said. “This is a low-income area. They’re not wealthy enough to hire attorneys to fight this. So, it just gets swept under the rug.”
Carroll, who is 78, claims that she has lived long enough. She doesn’t hold out hope that the problem will be solved in her lifetime. Her worried gaze turns toward the future.
“They need to make that water clean for future generations,” she said. “The people that lived through this didn’t even know the water was bad. I didn’t realize how bad it was, and I don’t know the effects it’s had on myself.”
When the DEQ tested nine homes, they found two with VOC levels above what was considered healthy. The report stated, however, that the elevated concentrations came from sources other than the ground water.
For, Carroll, this attitude is indicative of the larger problem with holding the major players accountable.
“They can find all sorts of other ways to blame it on other problems,” she said. “It’s hard to really prove anything.”
Carroll had no luck in the courtroom. The available evidence shows no clear casual connection between the polluted ground water and the deteriorating health of the community’s older population. There wasn’t a lawyer who would even work on the case long enough for it to stand trail.
Carroll is not pursuing further legal action against the railroad. Because her brother had diabetes, the causes of his kidney failure cannot be known. While she claims that the DEQ is “in cahoots with the railroad,” she hasn’t been able to make any charges stick.
“Sometimes you just throw up your hands,” she said wearily. “It has to be worth fighting for, but it takes more than one person to do it.”